The Bishop of London on Christian contemplation
Last week I got the chance to interview the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, for my research on spiritual ecstasy. It was an informal conversation, and it was very kind of the Bishop to give me the benefit of his time and wisdom. I thought he'd be a good interviewee because of his interest in contemplative practices and in Christian mystics like Thomas Traherne. And he was!
Do you think spiritual ecstasy is dangerous?
It certainly can be. We have forgotten how dangerous religion can be. We think of it as a minority leisure pursuit - another cup of tea, Vicar. To remember how dangerous it can be, you have to go back to before religion became obstinately metaphysical, to the Civil War, when the streets around here were filled with Levellers and Fifth Monarchists and other fanatics, who had caused a social revolution.
St Paul’s cathedral is, in some ways, Christopher Wren’s answer to religious enthusiasm - God as a mathematician rather than the terrifying arbitrary God of the Civil War.
The great Bishop Butler says to John Wesley: ‘pretending to special revelations of the Holy Ghost Mr Wesley is a very horrid thing. It’s a very horrid thing indeed.’ And it is indeed a very horrid thing. Unless it’s held firmly within a community of interpretation, with a shared communal experience of discerning between evil spirits and good spirits, then it’s very dangerous.
It’s happened again and again in the Church. Montanism was a clear example of an ungovernable Dionysian spirit in the early Church. It perhaps was there in the dance crazes of the Middle Ages, and in some of the Millenarian movements of the 14th and 15th centuries, as chronicled by the historian Norman Cohn.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a fear of the irrational, a fear of the ungovernable spirit, in the Church. As a result, the Holy Spirit was occluded, was edited out. If you look at the consecration of prayer in Cranmer’s prayer book [in the 1540s], it does not contain what all the primitive liturgies contain, which is an invocation of the Holy Spirit.
The sixteenth century, which was the century where western churches received their present shape, saw an over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics, an over-bureaucratization of the church and a cosying up to the nation state.
One of the most feared things as far as the reformed Roman church was concerned was the whole realm of mystical experience - why else did the Church put St John of the Cross in jail? The great spiritual mind of 16th century Spain was persecuted because his kind of mystical exploration is a threat to rigid control, bureaucratic church authority, and the over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics.
So you’re saying that, in reaction to the unbridled and violent Dionysian ecstasy of the late medieval and early modern era, the Church went too far, and occluded the Holy Spirit entirely?
Yes. The truth expresses itself as an economy in which the various elements of the truth aspect and balance one another. The truth is not to be encapsulated in a neat formula. It exists as a massive symphony, where the truth is given by the interplay of the various parts. If you omit any part of it, then there is a reaction and exaggeration of the missing element.
This is exactly what happened with the occlusion of the Holy Spirit in the West, and the editing out of the Eplicesis [the drawing down of the Holy Spirit] from western liturgies, and the demeaning of the Christian faith into a list of propositions, which turns God into an idea in the mind.
The reaction came in the Romantic revival and finally the Azusa Street Pentecostal movement, which has reshaped the sociology of the world. The Azusa Street explosion of Pentecostalism came because, in the economy of Christianity, the charismatic element is essential to Orthodoxy. In any one life, we see only a very small part of the curve of these great historical movements. It’s our duty to try and see more of the curve, and to knit together fragments of knowledge and relate them to the whole.
The charismatic stream is part of the grand symphony of the Christian faith. And one of the wonderful things about the Church of England in London is that, for various reasons, the charismatic stream has not absolutized itself, has not decided to lead a sectarian apart life, and to leave the church. In fact it is revivifying the church within, and is being saved from folly and rigidity, which always happens when you become sectarian. If you become sectarian in your mentality, and focus on one bit of the Christian economy, what happens is rigidity and eventually disappearance and decline.
The occlusion of the Holy Spirit never really happened to the same extent in the Eastern Church, by the way. The Treatise of St Basil on the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to the Eastern understanding of the Holy Spirit as the Perfector, as the Go-Between.
I rather incline to GK Chesterton’s view - you can’t really be an orthodox Christian without having a charismatic life. That doesn’t necessarily mean special gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such gifts are given to people at various stages of people in their pilgrimage, for good reason, often to break up the crust of convention which is keeping them imprisoned. Once a real fluency in spiritual matters has been achieved, they’re no longer necessary. It’s very dangerous to hold on to some of these psychic phenomena which often attend growing in the Holy Spirit.
So how much importance should we give to Holy Spirit encounters or charismatic gifts in our spiritual life?
I have a simple map of spiritual reality. We spend most of our time at the mental ego level, on the surface, with the self negotiating the world around - a self which we have largely manufactured and confected. It is very difficult to get modern people to understand prayer is not just a form of thinking at that level. That’s one of the fundamental errors and difficulties people encounter at the beginning of learning to pray.
At that mental ego level, there are often things of darkness which are unacknowledged. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, but often those dark things are left unacknowledged within us. And much religion is really dangerous and I would say lethal, because it is in effect the surreptitious re-ascent of the bruised ego.
We project parts of ourselves - our anger, all kinds of personal psychic material - into the middle distance, deifying it and conducting a solipsist conversation. God is very often a projection of some of this unacknowledged material.
You can see it very clearly: the God which causes people to smite and slay. Sane religious cultures which have lasted for a very long time have discerned that the real fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace and various other things. They certainly aren’t homicidal impulses.
So you have the mental ego level - and the adventure of prayer is to go beyond and beneath that - into the psychic zone, in which very often there are gifts of the spirit, charismatic gifts of various kinds - glossolalia, gifts of prophecy, and ecstatic utterance.
There is a great danger in falling in love with yourself once again as a spiritual person, in becoming too intrigued by these things, and to think ‘because I have these things I am a really serious Christian’. There has to be a continued Copernican revolution, and that revolution always turns us outwards in generosity to our fellows and in adoration to God. St Anthony the Great says we must see the Spirit in our neighbour, and love them.
But instead, what can happen when you have notable charismatic gifts, is once again a turning inwards, an admiration of the self. Lucifer the light-bringer fell, because he fell so in love with his own reflection.
And then after the psychic zone, there is what is called the heart, which for the Hebrews was not the blood pump, the heart for the Hebrews was the vitals, where the spiritual centre was actually located. And once you were quiet enough and had been educated by silence and stillness, and had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life, where the spirit is already there and praying in ways we can’t understand.
So that is the map. Part of being a follower of the spirit of truth in Christ is to make a passage through this dangerous territory, drain the shadows, and acknowledge that this thing of darkness is mine.
And it is a very dangerous thing to enterprise the exploration of the spirit alone and isolated. Unless you do it in community, you are open to delusion and have little way of checking the face of the god that is visiting you.
Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies. There is a very dangerous and dark realm, which the Christian practice navigates through, by practicing in a community, by modeling oneself on Jesus Christ, by digesting His words not just as ideas in the mind but also as sacramental practice.
Even Luther and Calvin say the Church is a community in which the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are duly administered. It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.
Where can we look to learn contemplative practices?
You’re asking for other people to engage with. Of course, there is the tradition of John Main and Laurence Freeman. I’m a member of the Eckhart Society - there is a huge renewed interest in Meister Eckhart. Then there is the Eastern tradition on the Holy Mountain, where you will find monks who have gone through the psychic phase and started to live an authentic spiritual life. In the UK, the 24 / 7 prayer movement is one place one could look - Pete Greig is the real thing. He’s a good man. And there are some books one could read, such as Olivier Clemont’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, or Thomas Keating’s Open Heart, Open Mind; or Mark McIntosh’s Mystical Theology.
But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation - we are very needy.
What about academic centres where contemplative practices could be studied and practiced?
The difficulty is that academia has sold out to a methodology which really depends on something all modern people must use - the experimental method, the metrics - and in this realm, that’s not applicable. The only thing you can do is be clear about the fruits of various practices.
The tree of knowledge was so fatal because it was knowledge wrenched from its source, and lying in atomized bits and pieces. We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril. Its arrogance is enormous. It still thinks it can preach to the whole world in the name of some very limited and abstract notions. It is indeed a civilization that is deeply needy.
So now we’re looking for an authentic wisdom which is inhabiting the whole Christian economy, with the right kind of balance and poise. Being sane and poised enough to love without distortion or hidden agendas. To be able to relate all knowledge to the whole, to the Pleroma, to the purposes of God. These are some of the aspects of wisdom, as opposed to knowing a hell of a lot.
Do you think there needs to be a contemplative revival in the Church?
The church needs huge reform in this respect, but certainly not the kind of fidgeting we’ve had in the last 50 years - fidgeting about structures and regulations, about the ministry, about this that and the other, and being a dull echo of the secular consensus, which of course says that the supreme value of life is individual choice whether in goods or morals.
The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women - it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us. That’s the real truth, and that’s why people are fascinated by other ways which have remained less disturbed by the gospel that really grips this society, which is that there should be no constraint on individual consumer choice in goods or morals. That’s the very opposite of the truth. Autonomy is the story of the fall, not redemption. The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.
A lot of people (including me) believe it’s possible to have spiritual experiences in various different traditions and beyond any tradition.
Spiritual But Not Religious is a new upper middle class religion. You take a bonne bouche of Sufism, season it with Californian Buddhism. It’s delightful. And your deity of course is your taste. There is no genuine spiritual progress without committing yourself to a way.
I don’t deny there are other ways that help people to make spiritual progress. If you start honestly on a way, you find yourself in a place where there is plenty of commerce and conversation with followers of other ways, but you can do it authentically. But you have to commit yourself to a way, because otherwise the Copernican revolution never occurs - you , your ego and your taste, are still in control, and the profound bouleversement does not occur.
So you can get to God via, say, Buddhism or Islam or even humanism?
You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. There is no other way to that destination.
But it would be very strange if this was a world created by God and marked by the Noachian covenant with all human flesh, in which God had left no vestige of Himself and His healing and ennobling spirit except within one strand or stream.
So I don’t find the denigration of other ways essential. It is the fact that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus Christ, that does not mean that all other ways have no element of truth within them. But I am clear that unless you commit yourself to a way, rather than being idly neutral or taking a bit from here and there, there’s no spiritual progress whatsoever.
It’s the balance of practice, conviction, generosity, compassion, community and creativity, properly related to the ultimate pole - God who no man has seen at any time, only Jesus Christ who has revealed the Father. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal - there are other portals which may take you to different places - you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this - that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.
If I’m a Christian, do I have to agree with everything St Paul says?
Well...I wouldn’t say that, because the Holy Scriptures are, again, symphonic. You’ve got to immerse yourself in the Biblical worldview, which begins to bring into the foreground the grand themes. Of course, bits of the Scriptures are things of their own time. But it isn’t an either / or. You don’t sit in judgement on the Scriptures.
This is the crucial thing: how do you go through the desert of criticism, with spiritual and intellectual integrity, granted that the primordial gift of innocence before the Scriptures is not possible for modern people. You arrive at a point where you develop the critical approach, because doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is going beyond, beneath, embracing, saying ‘yes!’ Grasping a vision. The opposite of faith is sin, a turning in on oneself.
That’s the opposite of faith, not doubt. Doubt is extraordinarily creative, as long as it doesn’t turn into corrosive scepticism, stopping us from any kind of commitment. You can be committed as far as you can be.
This largely comes from the astonishing work of Paul Ricouer. His work on Biblical criticism is all about how you can enter with spiritual and intellectual integrity into second innocence. And it’s possible. Indeed, the ‘nubbly bits’ are extraordinary fuel, as long as you continue to live with it.
If you believe you live on a pinnacle of enlightenment and eminence from which you can judge all times and places, there’s very little hope for you. If you’re prepared to read the scriptures with people from other ages and cultures, and prepared to say ‘I can’t take that’ while continuing with engagement, you may find some of those difficult passages yield as our musical taste changes, as our understanding of life and the great pattern changes, you may find they have a different valency.
But I don’t think you have to say, at this particular point, that because St Paul wanted, in the Philemon, to return a slave to his master, that you’re committed to upholding the institution of slavery, as Cardinal Newman thought. That shows the limitation of Cardinal Newman.